It’s just been that kind of season. I spent almost the entire regular season clawing my way back to .500 with my weekly best bets, failing to actually climb above .500 until the final week of the season. So, it should come as no surprise to hear that I went 2-2 with my four picks for Wild-Card Weekend. For that, I’ll thank the Bills, who squandered a 16-0 lead in the second half and in spectacular fashion, involving quite possibly the dumbest lateral in NFL history, failed to cover the spread as 2.5-point underdogs.
But, in the words of Bill Belichick, we’re onto the divisional round — a round that features three big spreads for three home teams. I only like one of those three teams, the Chiefs, to cover. That said, I also only like one road team to earn an upset this weekend. The road team in question happens to be the only team playing away from home that will enter its matchup with a huge advantage at quarterback. I’m talking about Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, who will face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay in a game between one of the league’s best quarterbacks (Wilson) and a quarterback who used to be great (Rodgers).
As for the rest of the picks, keep scrolling past the grumpy GIF of Jay Cutler to find out which way I’m leaning.
Last week: 2-2
Regular-season best-bets record: 43-41-1
And with that, the narrative that’s been held against Kirk Cousins for most of his career, at least since he emerged as a good starting quarterback, has been extinguished. Cousins answered all of the questions asked of him in the Vikings’ overtime win over the Saints. It’s now time to flip those questions around and ask them of Jimmy Garoppolo, who is making his playoff debut, even if those questions aren’t exactly fair in the first place. After all, it’s not like Garoppolo has played poorly in the postseason. He’s just never had a chance to play in the postseason — no, we’re not counting his very brief appearance in relief of Brady back in January 2015.
I want to look past the quarterbacks, though, because in my eyes, they’re near equals. Cousins was 10th in DVOA. Garoppolo was 11th. Cousins was 13th in total QBR. Garoppolo was 12th. They’re both good, but flawed quarterbacks.
Both defenses are also strong. The 49ers ranked second in DVOA. The Vikings were seventh. The 49ers allowed 19.4 points per game. The Vikings allowed 18.9 points per game.
The Vikings answered a lot of questions by going into New Orleans as 7.5-point underdogs and beating the Saints. They beat them because — in addition to Cousins heating up as the game progressed — their defensive front was able to win against the Saints’ offensive line. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for three sacks. What’s notable is that the Saints and 49ers finished the regular season with nearly identical pass-block win rates — a metric that is used to measure pass protection. So, Griffen and Hunter should be able to do it again. And it’s not like Santa Clara affords the 49ers the same kind of home-field advantage that the Superdome gives the Saints.
In short, I think this is a more even game than the line suggests. The Vikings are now 3-0 against the spread when they’re underdogs by 3.5 points or more. In a game between two evenly matched quarterbacks and two good defenses, I’ll take the Vikings to keep things close against the 49ers.
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Earl Thomas doesn’t seem to think the Titans can beat the Ravens if Ryan Tannehill is forced to air it out. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I think the Ravens are going to win. But I do think Tannehill is good enough to keep things close against a Ravens team that could be rusty coming off the bye and is still banged up with Mark Ingram’s status very much in doubt.
Tannehill finished the season as the league leader in yards per attempt (9.6), passer rating (117.5), and completion percentage above expectation (8.1). He did all of that even though he averaged the third-most air yards per attempt (9.7) and threw into tight windows at the sixth-highest rate (19.6%), per NFL Next Gen Stats. The point being, Tannehill is capable of airing it out and the Titans are capable of winning that way. After their upset win over the Patriots, they’re now 8-3 with Tannehill as the starter.
The Titans, as Thomas certainly knows, can also run the heck out of the ball. The good news for Tennessee is that the Ravens’ defense, which finished the season fourth in DVOA, is far more susceptible against the run than the pass (19th compared to fourth). So, the Titans should be able to heavily feature Derrick Henry in their plan of attack once again. The point being, I think the Titans can hang around against the Ravens.
But the Ravens are the better team and they’re at home, so I think they’ll win. The Titans’ defense looked great against the Patriots, but that Patriots’ offense wasn’t any good. The Ravens will get theirs, even if they don’t blow out the Titans.
Chiefs -9.5 vs. Texans
So much has changed since their Week 6 meeting. After that 31-24 loss to the Texans, the Chiefs were allowing 24 points per game.. Since that loss to the Texans, the Chiefs have allowed 16.4 points per game. Their defense finished the season 14th in DVOA. This time a year ago, the Chiefs were riding into the playoffs with a 26th-ranked defense that would eventually cost them a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs’ improved defense is one reason why I like them to breeze past the Texans. Obviously, though, it’s mostly about Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs’ offense. The Texans were extremely fortunate a week ago to only be down 16-0 in the third quarter due to the Bills’ inability to finish drives with touchdowns, which gave them a chance to come roaring back. I don’t think the Chiefs, against the seventh-worst defense by DVOA, will let the Texans hang around if the Texans start slow again. The Chiefs are capable of putting the game out of reach in the early going.
I think we’re going to see Mahomes have a huge game against a bad Texans defense, the Chiefs defense demonstrate just how much it has improved over the course of the season, and the Chiefs run away with a big win. The Chiefs went 10-5-1 against the spread this season, including 2-1-1 when they were favored by more than nine points.
I suppose we should start with the quarterbacks, because this is probably the area where the Seahawks have the biggest advantage over the Packers. It might seem strange to consider Russell Wilson substantially better than Aaron Rodgers, but at this point in their careers, Wilson is substantially better than Rodgers. There’s a reason — reasons, actually — why I ranked Rodgers as the 10th-best quarterback entering the playoffs (ahead of only Josh Allen and Carson Wentz) and Wilson as the fourth-best quarterback (behind only Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson), and there’s certainly an argument to be made that Wilson could’ve been placed as high as No. 2 behind only the league’s presumptive MVP.
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Rodgers is coming off a season that saw him finish eighth in DYAR, 13th in DVOA (which measures value per play), and 20th in total QBR. By most measures, he was not a great quarterback this season. We keep waiting for him to breakout in Matt LaFleur’s offense, but at this point, I think it’s safer to say there’s a better chance it won’t happen. Meanwhile, Wilson finished the year fourth, seventh, and sixth in DYAR, DVOA, and total QBR. If not for Jackson’s historic season, Wilson would likely be on course to be crowned MVP in a month’s time.
The quarterbacks are important for obvious reasons, but also because neither of these teams are particularly great. Both feature average-ish defenses. The Seahawks were fortunate to finish with 11 wins due to their insane 10-2 record in one-score games, not to mention they just beat a Carson Wentz-less Eagles team by only eight points. The Packers were also lucky to win as many games as they did (13).
In a game between two over-performing teams, I’ll take the better of the two quarterbacks. I think this game is going to come down to one-score. The Seahawks always play up or down to their level of competition. This is the same team that beat the Bengals by one point, but also split the season-series with the 49ers by winning one game in overtime and losing the other at the 1-yard line. In what should be another close game, I trust Wilson more than Rodgers.
The Seahawks go into Lambeau Field and upset the Packers.
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